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Holiday Ecommerce Lessons – The Paid Search and Paid Social Dynamic

Published: January 28, 2019

Author: Sara Henderson

Ecommerce clients always have a busy 4th quarter gearing up for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and, of course, Holiday shopping. Ecommerce clients who specialize in holiday products are on their own level. One client of ours sells seasonal apparel and accessories throughout the year, but Halloween and Christmas/Hanukkah products cover over 70% of their annual revenue brought in through paid search and social efforts. This year was our first managing that client’s campaigns during the Holiday season, and we had just taken over social efforts, including Facebook and Pinterest, over the summer.
The approach, therefore, was to come in with a solid holiday strategy but understand that this was trial-and-error and we had a number of initiatives to test. One of the main strategic battles was budget allocation between channels. There was an expectation and a day-by-day spend plan, but this was also dependent on efficiency and performance by channel, both of which could not be determined until we were in the heart of the season.

A few weeks in, we found two major juxtapositions that challenged our pre-season decision-making:

Acquisition versus intent-driven users

The intention of the user on each channel can affect campaign performance. Search campaigns attract intent-driven users. That is, the user has actively gone and looked for a product or service online and is, therefore, further down the conversion funnel. Social acquisition campaigns, on the other hand, serve ads to users who fit within the interest targeting or look-alike audience and may not actually be actively looking for or interested in the product. Based on this, we found efficiency (measured in ROAS) to be 60% higher for search ads compared to social. At the same time, the user’s intention that makes search more efficient also affects volume, which is now limited to those searching and, therefore, requires a more limited budget.

Image vs. text-based ads

The type of product sold, and the company’s brand style, lent itself to a more visual marketing approach. That is, we noticed that an image ad where the user can see the products being sold was much more appealing than a text ad. With the holiday rush, we began to see a difference between the image-based and text-based ad performance. Image ads had a 45% higher click-through-rate than text ads during the holiday season. Although conversion rate was lower, we could see that the image ads were receiving more user interaction.


The challenge, therefore, was finding balance between our paid search and social initiatives while maintaining efficiency and budget and growing revenue year-over-year.  Two main points outlined our search/social balance strategy after seeing channel performance during the first few weeks of Q4:

Align product-based keywords in non-brand campaigns with images used in social acquisition campaigns

Historically, we have seen a strong relationship between social efforts and brand search campaigns. For instance, a user may be served an ad on their Facebook feed and later search the brand name to explore the site. Therefore, when we ramped up social efforts, we expected to see a rise in brand campaign performance.
Surprisingly, we also noticed an upsurge in non-brand campaign performance. Looking into search terms, we found an rise in users searching for specific products that were displayed in our social acquisition campaigns. These were search terms describing the text on the product itself, so we understood that the users had seen images of it elsewhere. In order to take advantage of this spike in search traffic, we added product-specific keywords to actively bid on the search terms related to top-performing products. Moving forward, we began to add product-specific keywords when switching out social image ads. This allowed us to keep up with demand and to tailor landing pages to the user’s search terms, leading to a rise in overall volume, click-through-rate, and conversion rate.

Use Google Shopping Campaigns to garner the best of both worlds

Google Shopping campaigns are on an intent-driven channel and utilize product image ads, two factors we had previously found improved performance. Although the images used are not as appealing as the lifestyle images seen in many social ads, they allowed the user to see the product before clicking into the site, which aided both click-through-rate and conversion rate. Shopping campaigns were used for the ecommerce client throughout the year, but a strategic and collaborative approach was needed for this high-volume quarter.
We pushed Google Shopping campaigns throughout the holiday season and found a complementary relationship between Search and Shopping campaigns. The Search campaigns gave us more control over what ads showed up to certain search terms, whereas Shopping campaigns brought in more user interaction. We did see cannibalization when both a search and shopping ad would show up for certain keywords, but since payment is by clicks and not impressions, there was simply a better chance of the user clicking either a text or an image ad.
By the end of the season, we had a strong grasp on the relationship between Search, Shopping, and Social campaigns when implementing strategy. The types of campaigns complement each other and a balance of each was necessary to reach client goals. Understanding user intention and engagement was critical to determine budget allocations and time management during the busy holiday season.

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